Forms of Attention

Attention is so vast and varied, its forms may seem to have nothing in common. It can involve alertness or a lack of it, an inward focus, or a focus on something beyond the self. The object of attention may be single or multiple, or it may not be an object at all. That is, you can pay attention without knowing exactly what it is you are paying attention to. It could be something other than what you think. Attention can take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go.

If I had to explain the joy of going to hear Platon Karataev—the duo or the full band—in different settings, different cities, I would say that most of it can’t be explained; it goes far beyond what I can put words or ideas to. But it’s about as far from “groupiness” as you can get. It has to do with the music, the lyrics, the musicians, the attention that fills all the layers of their concerts. The attention within the songs, the attention they give each other, in the moment, the audience’s attention, their attention to the audience. It isn’t all about attention—there’s much more to it—but the attention at any of their concerts becomes part of my life. What I bring as an audience member, what each audience member brings, also takes part in the event and follows us, slightly or greatly changed, out the door.

Yesterday I went to the beautiful old city of Győr—for the first time—to hear the Platon Karataev duo play at the Protestant (Református) church, as part of the Öt Templom Fesztivál (Five Churches Festival), a week of concerts and other events at five of their religious sites: the Evangelical Old Church, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the Synagogue, and the Greek Catholic Church. I had decided to go only if I could get enough done beforehand: I am playing cello in a big citywide student theatre performance this week at the Szigligeti Szinház, and working on a new song, so I needed to practice; also, I needed to make enough headway with Folyosó that the spring issue could come out on Monday (tomorrow). I accomplished both of these and set out by train.

The concert was special: an absolutely hushed audience, not even any clapping except at the beginning and end. Beloved songs, new details that I heard in them, a new song too, warm, large lights that poured out slowly changing color, and an attention that began before the concert, grew and grew during it, and lingered long after its ending.

I took no pictures during the concert, but the picture above is of the keyhole, while I was still outside and they were doing a soundcheck. I was listening through the door for a minute or two and glimpsing the red light through the crack.

Getting there was simple enough: a train to the Budapest Keleti station, then a train to Győr from the same station. The return took a few more steps: a train to the Kelenföld station, a metro to Kálvin tér, a transfer to another metro line (amazingly, the M3 is now in full operation, after five years of repairs), a metro to the Nyugati station, and a slow train back to Szolnok. But it all worked out without a hitch, and I walked home from the Szolnok station and even stayed up a little longer afterward, past 2 a.m.

On the train to Győr, I was rereading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and came to the sentence (which repeats with variations in the novel), “They felt they were standing on a snow-covered plain, shivering with cold.” The Platon Karataev song “Atoms” (the title song of their second album) quotes it almost directly; I started hearing the song in the novel and vice versa. I thought about the genius of the translator and editor who did not make the mistake of deeming “shivering with cold” redundant and reducing it to just plain “shivering.” If it had been just “shivering,” would “Atoms” have come into existence? Or if it had, would it be anything like the song we know?

We can get caught up in foolishness: dogmatic, mechanical ideas about anything at all, including editing, including reduction. There’s a misconception that writing should be reduced, always, to the minimum words needed; if words seem to repeat each other’s meaning, then all but one should go, according to rigid dictates. But this is wrong; “shivering with cold” is not a redundancy, even after the mention of the snow-covered plain. It adds to the layers of cold; it also suggests that you could be shivering with something else. Also, it’s beautiful. When I listen to it, I know it must stay. It is the song that opened up this sentence to me.

Aristophanes plays with necessary redundancies (which are not redundancies, in fact) in Frogs: in the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, Euripides chides Aeschylus for his repetitions, but both Aeschylus and Dionysos suggest that he has missed the point. (While the whole exchange is playful, I sense Aristophanes siding with Aeschylus just a little here.) Here is the passage (in the translation of B.B. Rogers):

DIO. Give him another: (to Eur.) you, look out for faults.

AESCH. Be thou my saviour and mine aid to-day, For here I come, and
hither I return

EUR. The same thing twice says clever Aeschylus.

DIO. How twice?

EUR. Why, just consider: I’ll explain. “I come,” says he; and “I
return,” says he: It’s the same thing, to “come” and to “return.”

DIO. Aye, just as if you said, “Good fellow, lend me
A kneading trough: likewise, a trough to knead in.”

AESCH. It is not so, you everlasting talker,
They’re not the same, the words are right enough.

DIO. How so? inform me how you use the words.

AESCH. A man, not banished from his home, may “come”
To any land, with no especial chance.
A home-bound exile both “returns” and “comes.”

DIO. O good, by Apollo! What do you say, Euripides, to that?

EUR. I say Orestes never did “return.” He came in secret: nobody
recalled him.

DIO. O good, by Hermes! (Aside.) I’ve not the least suspicion what he

EUR. Repeat another line.

DIO. Ay, Aeschylus, Repeat one instantly: you, mark what’s wrong.

AESCH. Now on this funeral mound I call my father To hear, to

EUR. There he is again. To “hear,” to “hearken”; the same thing,

DIO. Aye, but he’s speaking to the dead, you knave,
Who cannot hear us though we call them thrice.

AESCH. And how do you make your prologues?

EUR. You shall hear; And if you find one single thing said twice,
Or any useless padding, spit upon me.

“Useless padding” does exist and should be avoided; often, when you strip down a sentence, you make it much stronger and fresher than before. But not always. One must dare the distinctions. Aristophanes’ Euripides seems a bit obtuse in this regard.

This brings up the question of repetition: even very close echoes of a word or phrase can bring something new. So can a supposedly repeated experience, like a concert. You can feel the samenesses and differences mixing. Last night I thought I heard something new at the end of “Lassú madár,” which is sometimes my favorite of all the Platon Karataev songs. It was nothing added or taken away: just (in my ears) a different articulation just before the end, a minuscule pause before the final “gyorsabb az égboltnál.” A tiny detail in the midst of the larger magic.

And this was even with an imperfect sound system; something was crackling here and there in the wires, but this little crackle became beautiful, wrapped up in the whole.

Part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being has to do with misunderstood words, or words that people understand in different, sometimes contradictory ways. “Attention” could be one of these words. People’s different forms of attention can sometimes be confused with lack of attention. When people say, “You’re not listening!” or “You’re not paying attention!” they often mean, “You’re not paying attention in the way that I expect you to pay attention.” One of the most moving aspects of a Platon Karataev duo concert is the way Sebő and Gergő pay such close attention to each other, even while differing (somewhat) in their forms of attention. This could be said about many musicians who play well together, but here it takes a form and depth not quite like anything else.

I leave off with some pictures from the day. The first one was taken from the train window; if you zoom in, you can see a bird in the bare tree. The second was shortly after my arrival in Győr; the third, during my wandering around the old part of the city; the fourth and fifth, as I headed over to the concert (you can see the Platon Karataev duo mentioned on the billboard, and the synagogue in the background); the sixth, after the concert, on the way back to the train station, and the seventh, in Budapest, just before I boarded the train to Szolnok. Now back to the cello and Folyosó.

Update: Here are some photos of the concert, taken by someone other than me.

Following an Instinct, Going to Prague

If I had told anyone that I was going to Prague this weekend—by train, from Szolnok—to hear Platon Karataev and to visit the city for the first time, some would have instantly understood, whereas others would have thought it (and maybe me) a bit nuts. But I realized I could afford it (for one thing, a fee I will receive this month as a seminar guest speaker equals what I spent on travel and lodging, and for another, my birthday is coming up), and something told me that this was exactly the right thing to do this weekend. The trip itself showed me why. After you read this story, you will see why too. (The trip isn’t over; I still have the morning here.)

Platon Karataev is on a short tour of Warsaw, Kraków, Prague, and Vienna, with the band The Devil’s Trade (whom I heard for the first time last night in Prague and loved—soulful, exhilarating metal folk). The other three concerts were out of reach for me, because of my work schedule, but Prague was possible.

To get to Prague, I had to go to Budapest, then transfer to an international train. I found an inexpensive round-trip itinerary with a reserved window seat for the longer part of the trip. I would need to leave home at five on Saturday morning, catch the 5:25 train out of Szolnok, arrive in Budapest a little before seven, transfer, and depart for Prague at 7:29. This would bring me to Prague a little before three in the afternoon; there would be several hours for exploring before the concert, and then the next day I could explore all morning before heading back in the early afternoon, returning to Szolnok before eleven in the evening. I figured I could take work with me, though I didn’t know how comfortable it would be to work on the train. (By “work” I mean going over edits to my translations of Tomas Venclova’s poems for a new book in the works—and preparing for Pesach and next Shabbat.)

For lodging, I reserved a self-service apartment in the Mala Strana district, near Petrin Hill, which figures in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I could walk there (a long walk) from the train station—and from there it would supposedly be only half an hour’s walk to Klub 007 in the Strahov district, where the concert would be. Each walk contained something I wanted to see: the Metronome and Petrin Tower, respectively, as well as views of the city from various heights.

I left my apartment on time, got to the train station on time, got to Budapest by seven, had plenty of time for the transfer, and then found that my seat had a table and there was no one sitting beside or across for me—so I could set up the laptop and work without interruption. It proved restful and productive. I was only distracted by the views through the window and an intriguing situation across the aisle from me.

Two women, I quickly gleaned, were going to Prague as well and were very excited. They looked vaguely familiar; it started to dawn on me that they, too, might be going to hear Platon Karataev, or that this was part of their plan. (This was correct—more about that later.) One was wearing a long black dress; I too had brought a long black dress for the evening. I felt like a spy; at one point they went to the dining car, and a little while later, I went there too, but sat at a distance from them so as not to bother them. I had eggs and coffee and felt on top of the world.

The train ride itself was great fun—like being at my desk all day but with a big window and changing scenes in front of me. We passed through Visegrád (with the prominent castle on the hill), Bratislava (no views of the old city, but lots of highrises), Brno, and many smaller cities and towns. I could take in the Slovak, and later the Czech, countryside: hills, rivers, a field full of deer, forests upon forests. Because of a detour, the train took (I think) an industrial route, so I saw a train carrying loads of new cars, and another one churning what seemed to be cement or gravel. The skies were dramatic with changing clouds, passing rains, and bursts of sun; I had a feeling I would see a rainbow that day, but it didn’t happen during the train ride.

When we arrived in Prague, I bounded off the train and in the general direction of my apartment, through a vast, leafy park that opened up into a view of the city. After a while, I could see the Vltava river down below and the city gleaming on both sides of it, I wended my way south and westward and saw a group of people marching for peace. Immediately after that, I saw the Metronome.

Now comes one of the best parts of the trip. I walked along winding roads, trying to figure out how to get down to the part of the city. It started to rain, and then the sun burst out of the clouds. “Now for a rainbow!” I thought. I looked around and saw it! I started running toward it and pointing, trying to alert others to it. They ignored me and kept on walking. I did get some people to take a picture of me under it, though, and I got a few good shots of it myself.

Finally I made my way down to the city and was entranced by the stone streets, old buildings, and shops, particularly an English language bookstore and a marionette shop.

Once I got to the apartment (spacious and comfortable, on a quiet street), I hurried up, took a shower, and headed up Petrin Hill to the tower. The tower itself was closed for climbing (as of 6 p.m.), so I headed down the hill, toward the club, or at least I thought I was heading toward it. This was where the problems began. The compass on my phone did not always tell the truth, nor did Google Maps tell me my exact location. I asked people how to get to the Strahov district, but if they knew at all, they would point me in contradictory directions, with instructions like, “Follow that road all the way around the hill, around and around, and then turn left.” I would follow the directions only to find myself even farther from the destination. I had thought I would get to the club early, but now the show was about to start; I stopped in a little convenience store, and the woman showed me on her computer that I needed to go up the hill again and around, way around…. I ran with all my might, tried to flag down a car for a ride (was ignored), asked more people directions, got pointed this way and that, saw different times on the different clocks, walked and ran, walked and ran, tears starting to come down, and then, as I approached another winding road, ran into a family. Definitely Czech, definitely familiar with the city. I asked them, “Please tell me how to get to Strahov, I have been told so many different directions, and now I’m late.” The older man said with a grin, “You just follow that winding road, and you will be in Strahov!” He was right; winding and winding around, and then (as someone earlier had said) passing through an apartment complex, I found the place and arrived only a few minutes late (Platon Karataev was playing “Apbelion,” their third song that night).

The show was special to me because it was Platon Karataev, and because it was at a small club with all that goes along with that—a distinctive atmosphere, in this case a dedicated stage and sound crew, but also a sound system that gave a bit of distortion to the songs, bringing back memories of hearing favorite musicians in tiny clubs in San Francisco, the brilliance bursting through the gritty sound. In Hungary, you can no longer hear Platon Karataev in a small club; whether playing as a duo or as a full band, they are so highly respected and draw such a crowd that they get booked at the top venues with superb sound systems, which suit their music well because of its many tones and shades. Only once or twice have I heard them play when the sound system wasn’t up to par. But this little bit of grit in the sound last night was wonderfully bracing. Some of the highlights for me were “Halló mindenség / Aláírhatatlan történelem” (their Vágtázó Halottkémek cover), “Partért kiáltó,” “Nem felelhet,” and the “Ocean/Wolf Throats” finale. The small audience loved the show—and yes, the two women from the train were there! They explained to me afterward that this trip was their gift to each other for their birthdays, which had taken place in January.

I stayed for The Devil’s Trade, of course, not having to rush back to Szolnok for a change. They were amazing. The music was full-hearted and dark, with rich vocal cadences, rhythms, sound (yes, distorted too, but again, that only added to its beauty this time). I bought a CD from them and will be listening to them more. They too are from Hungary; their songs are in both Hungarian and English.

Afterwards I wound my way back around the hill, this time knowing where I was going. The city is both spooky and stunning at night. It wasn’t easy to take night pictures (the lights don’t come out very well), but I took a few.

And here I am after a thick sleep, wrapping this up so that I can spend a few hours walking in the old city, across the river. I’m taking it slow because I walked and ran so much yesterday and because this apartment is so peaceful—but I’ll head out shortly. There will be more to say about today (and more thoughts on yesterday)—but I will add that later, in a separate post. The trip has played out the lines from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó,” “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezert a mondatért, ezért az emberért jöttem, ezért az emberert….” (Translated liberally: “This is the sentence I came here for, this is the sentence here. This is the person I came here for, this is the person here.”) I don’t mean this in the more obvious sense—that I came out to hear them, though that also is true—but rather that there is an encounter that each of us will travel distances for. Maybe it’s an encounter with music. Maybe with a city. Maybe with a person. But in any case, it’s the same, because it’s singular, there’s nothing like it, and the moment it happens it’s gone. And as soon as it’s gone, it is there forever, somewhere in the air.

Right after The Devil’s Trade, Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin'” came over the loudspeakers. I lingered to listen to it. Without knowing it, I had come for that song, too.

I added a few details and made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

Those Sixteen Measures


It was in graduate school that I fell in love with Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění). I read it again and again, and then later, over the years, returned to the book and my favorite passages in it. This (and everything leading up to it) is my favorite passage of all:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

The narrator is speaking of Beethoven’s Opus 111, the last of his piano sonatas. I listened to this piece over and over as a high school student, listened to again over the years, and am returning to it now. It breaks ground no matter where you are in your musical and life experience and how many times you have listened to it.

Loss takes its own form, direction, and time. The world tells you to set goals; you go around and around. The world tells you to move on; you don’t. But then you realize that the world isn’t telling you anything. You have to figure out for yourself what to make of it all and what to do.

The lingering and the circling have their own reasons. They don’t just repeat themselves haplessly. They have variations and digressions. Over time you start to see things in a new way, or at least you start to know what it was you were seeing.

We usually grieve more than one thing at once: along with a person, a part of ourselves, a part of the world, a way of life, a belief in something. A piece of existence falls away forever; with that piece, a person close to us, or someone important to us, and in that person, cavern after cavern, light after light. This is true even if the person does not die. A lost friendship, a breakup, a falling out can bring up this same grief.


Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” comes to mind:

Spring and Fall

                         to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Marcell Bajnai’s new song “Dühöngő” (“Raging”) has something to do with all of this. It circles around and around a loss, but always in a different way, and the loss takes on different forms and meanings each time. It could be a loss of a person, a loss of faith, or a loss of something in the self, or all of these combined. The song’s refrain has several variations, one of which is this:

nem hibák, csak végzetek,
feltámadás után halni meg
ordító némaság,
hitetlen, dühöngő gyávaság

(Approximately: “Not mistakes, just destinies, to die after resurrection, roaring silence, faithless, raging cowardice.”)


The words play against the other words in the song; variation plays against variation. Images and possibilities intertwine with the melody. When I listen to it, I change a little bit.

Grief of this kind is not the most accepted emotion, or mixture of emotions, in the world, nor can it be laid out in flat prose. It requires art and is one of the reasons for art. This very blog post points to art again and again. Without art, we would be limited to the slogan, the goal, the game plan–all those things that urge certainty of action. Those are essential too. I would not have my new apartment without a series of actions and words. But those certainties are limited by the very language that expresses them. There, words serve a specific purpose and are no longer needed, except for the record, once the purpose is accomplished. I do not find myself rereading contracts and manuals, except to find specific information in them.

But art brings you back to find more–in the work, in yourself, in the world. Grief is a plunge into the hidden regions of life–lonely and frightening at first, but then surprising, then brilliant, then so much at once that you have to lay it out in time, in form, and pass through its infinite possibilities.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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